Psychology Fritz Heider
Marion Schmidt
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 October 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0255


Fritz Heider (b. 1896–d. 1988) was an Austrian-American Gestalt and social psychologist. He is considered one of the founding fathers of interpersonal social psychology, contributing in particular his theories of attribution, balance, and motivation. (For attribution theory see the Oxford Bibliographies in Psychology article “Attribution Theory” by Bertram F. Malle and Joanna Korman) Studying in Graz and Berlin, he was influenced both by the Berlin school of Gestalt psychology under Wertheimer, Köhler, and Koffka and the Graz school under Alexius Meinong, as well as by his lifelong friendship with Kurt Lewin. He emigrated to the United States in 1930 to take a joint position at Smith College and the Clarke School for the Deaf in Northampton, Massachusetts. In 1947, he took a position as professor of psychology at the University of Kansas department of psychology, where he remained for the rest of his career. He was married to Gestalt and child psychologist Grace Moore Heider, with whom he also collaborated professionally during their time at the Clarke School. Heider’s approach was not laboratory-based, but philosophical and observational. He was a close observer of how people interact with each other and their surroundings, and also analyzed stories, aphorisms, fables, and fairy tales for generalizable narratives of human behavior. Heider believed that individuals use a kind of naïve or common-sense psychology to explain the behavior of others; this common-sense psychology thus shapes their perception of and interaction with their social world. For decades, he collected and systematized his observations in his notebooks, which were later published. While he was a meticulous and nuanced observer, he was not a prolific writer. Open to different influences, he long grappled with how to systematize human behavior into a generalizable theoretical system of social interaction. Influenced by Kurt Lewin, he sometimes tried to capture interpersonal behavior in a kind of mathematical shorthand, though he never lost sight of the essentially human dimension of his material. Apart from his autobiography, he only published four monographs: in 1927, his revised thesis, Ding und Medium; in 1940 and 1941, together with his wife, two monographs on the psychology of deafness; and in 1958 The psychology of interpersonal relations, which is considered his main work and a seminal contribution to social psychology. Beyond these works, Heider published about a dozen articles on various aspects of phenomenology, Gestalt and social psychology, and the history of psychology. He had few graduate students but nevertheless influenced younger generations through his seminars and his traveling and teaching abroad.

Autobiographical Works

The reader interested broadly in Heider’s childhood, life, family, and friends should look to Heider 1983. Heider 1989 focuses more narrowly on his professional life.

  • Heider, Fritz. 1983. The life of a psychologist: An autobiography. Lawrence: Univ. Press of Kansas.

    At age 85, Heider looks back on his life, recounting his personal and professional development, as well as his collaboration and friendship with important psychologists and philosophers, including Kurt Lewin, Kurt Koffka, and Roger Barker.

  • Heider, Fritz. 1989. Fritz Heider. In A History of psychology in autobiography. Vol. 7. Edited by Gardner Lindzey, 126–155. Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ. Press.

    Provides an overview of Heider’s life with a focus on his career, the development of his theories, and the people influencing him along the way. Also provides insights into his teenage years and starting interest in philosophy, psychology, and interpersonal relations.

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